Military's Oil Needs Not Deterred by Price Spike

All the U.S. tanks, planes and ships guzzle 340,000 barrels of oil a day, making the American military the single-largest purchaser and consumer of oil in the world.

If the Defense Department were a country, it would rank about 38th in the world for oil consumption, right behind the Philippines.

Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Co., is a good place to start if you want to understand why the military uses so much oil. A bulky C-130 "Hercules" transport plane fires up its four propeller engines in a corner of the tarmac as Senior Master Sgt. Glen Blackmann looks on.

Blackmann said the giant aircraft, which has six football-shaped fuel tanks that hang under the wings, can carry anything up to and including a small armored tank.

"All together, I think it holds about 53,000 pounds of fuel," he said. "Divided by 6.7 pounds per gallon ... that's just under 8,000 gallons of fuel that the C-130 can hold."

That would get you to about St. Johns, Newfoundland, without refueling, a distance of about 2,600 miles, he said.

That's three gallons to the mile.

There are more than 500 C-130s in the Air Force and Reserves. That's just one machine in one branch of the military. The Army's Abrams battle tank weighs 60 tons and needs about two gallons to travel a mile.

So, how will the rising price of fuel affect military operations?

Michael O'Hanlon, a former Defense Department budget analyst who is now with the Brookings Institution, explains that "despite spending billions a year on its oil, (the military) is nonetheless ... the user that's at least risk ... of having its fuel supply cut off or having economics really crimp its ability to fill up the gas tank."

After all, in a time of war the Department of Defense can't really say, 'Let's not fly that mission this week because gas prices are too high.'

So the military doesn't need to worry, he said. "It is, in the short term, a management challenge and there are many Pentagon comptroller types who are staying up late into the evening figuring out how to make this work."

When Congress considers the next appropriation for the military fuel costs likely will not be high on the agenda.

The bigger challenge for the military, O'Hanlon said, is what the price hikes represent — a narrowing of the gap between supply and demand that could cause problems for the military down the road. What happens when such an oil hungry institution can't get oil? That's why the Defense Department is conducting all kinds of research on alternate forms of energy and more efficient machines.

So is a hybrid tank on the horizon? It's already in the works.

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